Monday, 6 February 2012

London Wetlands Centre's Winter Wonderland

On London Tonight on Friday, photographer Iain Green was shown demonstrating how best to take photographs on an icy day at the amazing London Wetlands Centre in Barnes. A fortnight ago, I was there photographing some of the same subjects on just such a day, but whereas he’s a talented photographer whose work turned out beautifully, I barely know how to switch on the camera. I have little concept of how to translate what I’m seeing in my mind into something impressive on display (I can’t say on paper; most of my photos end up as a slide show on my screen saver, which cheers me up as I love to see animals). I take snapshots, not photographs, to remind me of walking around somewhere wonderful on a pleasant , and that’s enough for now.

One day I will do as I’ve long intended and blog generally about visiting the sublime London Wetlands Centre (LWC), particularly as I still retain ‘outsider’ status despite being a member for over a year, since I get there rarely and know nothing about birds. I always say I’m not a birdwatcher; I’m a wildlife noticer. But I love going there for the amazing peace it offers, and given that just seeing mallard ducks on a park pond or starlings whistling in my tree thrills me, just because I adore seeing wildlife, it’s fantastic to find a spot where one is guaranteed to see plenty of it. Plus I figure if I keep taking pictures, one day I’ll figure it out, the theory being that practice makes acceptable. I will never be a committed wildlife photographer who lies in a frozen field for 20 hours in hopes of getting that perfect photograph of some rarely spotted creature. I like my creature comforts and can barely bend to bird-level to photograph the ones walking around thanks to my bad back. (I can bend down there; I’d just to remain down there until some kind passer-by passed by and offered to pick me up.) I don’t mind taking pictures with my unimpressive minor zoom lens of distant common ducks when I’m sitting in the comfort of one of their hides, and I tend to get shy and self-conscious around anyone who knows what they’re doing. But I just love being at the Centre and hearing the sublimely peaceful whisper of the breeze in the wheat-like fields with an orchestra of beautiful birdsong playing in the foreground. (One comes to zone out the sound of the planes flying overhead and the whistles from the nearby rugby ground, the latter of which rather adds to the atmosphere anyway).

But before I get to a sort of beginner’s blog to visiting the LWC and the true joys every step of the way, I thought I’d just put up a few of my snapshots from that icy January day, if only to show you the difference between what little I can manage when simply preserving a memory of the moment compared to similar subjects taken by professionals like Iain Green or the many mind-blowingly talented amateurs who regularly visit the Centre. I’m not just doing my part to make them look good, as they don’t need it. But maybe if I post a few of my mediocre snaps of a splendid day, it will show anyone reading that they can see some cute and pretty things on their visit and come away happy even if they’re ignorant and untalented as I am. It’s a great place to be. These aren’t my best photographs from the LWC ever (and there are many worse!) but they might give a slight impression of the loveliness of even an icy day at the London Wetlands Centre.

The ice, of course, brings the chance of seeing many apparently holy birds walking on water, like these coots. I think they must be the Torvill and Dean of the coot world, as they were very much at home on the ice together. Unlike Torvill and Dean, the ice seems to make them downright frisky.

This next photograph is a bit of abstract art, or a cold coot bathing in golden waters. It does not quite have the synchronised swimming look of water ballet that so many ducks give their audience, but I found it entrancing just the same.

Another enchanting episode repeated at the Centre is the sight of swans flying. The sound of swans flying is unreal; their flapping wings sound like the whirring of machinery in an industrial revolution factory, or the hum of a sleek classic car when it was a high-tech novelty. More than that, it puts one firmly in mind of aviation, which rather makes sense. Seeing such huge but graceful birds plough roughly into the water is another joy. They look as though they’re struggling to balance, trying out their new angels’ wings for a maiden flight, practically calling out ‘Whoa! Who-a!’ as their feet hit the water.
Their take-offs can seem just as unwieldy—but then even when we fly, take-offs and landings are the trickiest part of the flight. In this picture, I feel I should call ‘beware of low-flying objects!’ to what I think is a herring gull. It was like watching one of those films where the hapless protagonist is about to be run over by a lorry, and you have to hope that if he keeps his head down, it might just pass safely over him. (I’m guessing this big, brownish gull who was lone amongst the smaller black-headed gulls is a herring gull wearing his winter coat. His face is much more noble than I expected; he looks quite wizened. I wondered if he were a bit lonely, one of his kind amongst strangers who might have been thinking “You’re not from around these parts, are you?” and shutting him out. (No, I’m not really mad with Dr Doolittle Disease).

From huge to little….I saw a Little Grebe (and an astonishing number of other birds) on my first trip to the LWC and had never even heard of one before. Really, I first saw a little Little Grebe, as its mother was at the time underwater, diving for food for its….uh, grebeling? Dabchick chick? They wore flashier colours then, and I find them charming, so sweetly delicate, and they dive for so long whenever I raise my camera that I assume they’re trying to shake me off like celebrities try to ditch the paparazzi. Seriously, I think they are. If celebrities bothered to invest in scuba gear, far fewer photos of them looking fat in a bikini would show up in The Daily Mail.

Tufted Ducks are another charming group that always look like they’re shooting me an annoyed look. They remind me of Looney Tunes’ Daffy Duck, in which case perhaps the Tufted Ducks are just a bit self-conscious about their lisp and staring me down before I pick on them, which I would never do. But such a tough glare could easily give one Anatidaephobia. Though I still think it’s cute.

This blurry chap on the left is, I believe, a Water Rail. I caught him (insofar as I did) by pointing my not-outstandingly-long-zoom lens towards a very distant slightly bulbous blob amidst the far away reeds that I thought there was the tiniest chance could be the Jack Snipe that I had been looking at from a different hide (thanks to kind souls welcoming me when I arrived and letting me look through their scope to watch it bob). My cheapo binoculars don’t bring things much closer, so I snapped away on the off chance and was surprised to see the Water Rail when I got home. Which is grand because I didn't know I'd seen one. I know little about birds so I could be wrong, but it’s blurrily purdy, innit?
Similarly blurry but with little excuse is this group pruning session of a Wigeon with Eiders either side—not a great photo (on the right), but the symmetry somehow soothes me.
Starkly in better focus is this duck that, frankly, I know nothing about, but isn’t it xtraordinary? What lovely feathers, despite it being an odd combination of colours and patterns, like a deliberately clashing outfit from the 80s. Mostly it makes me think of handing a duck colouring book to a little girl who then, rather than boringly filling in the lines with typical mallard colours or just brown as many children might, instead applies all her favourite colour crayons and patterns and produces this gloriously different duck. As though this duck standing on that bit of 
wood has been coloured in beautifully by Mother Nature’s little girl.

Another beautiful exotic duck that I believe permanently lives at the Centre is this one illustrating the expression “like water off a duck’s back.” This next mystery resident duck on the left always seems to have a silly but intensively innocent look on its face, which I know is a weird thing to say about something that cannot smile. But maybe acting teachers should show this to their students when they’re trying to achieve an innocent look.

Speaking of exotic ducks, this is a bad picture of a Mandarin duck, which must officially be one of the most incredibly beautiful specimens of water fowl. I mean, just look at it; it looks as though it were designed by Ferrari….or Gucci. The picture’s poor because I didn’t catch his reflection, but at the time I was more interested in capturing the funky way his neck feathers looked as he repeatedly plunged his beak into the water (left), but failed to get a good one at the right angle. Still, just admire that beauty. Gorgeous, isn’t he? Amazing what nature creates.

Still with ducks, I must say that as an American, I never understood the fashion for hanging three ornamental flying ducks on your wall, as one of the old Coronation Street characters did, but seeing the real thing against a blue sky can almost explain its charm.  

Moving to geese, I feel oddly like there’s something sassy about how Egyptian Geese walk away, like a petulant girl storming off. Note that I said sassy, not sexy. I have no duck fetish. I worry that, if I add that I love their colouring, particularly their beautiful tail feathers, this whole paragraph looks a bit disturbing. I promise you I have no sick Owen-from-Vicar-of-Dibley-style love of ducks; I just think they’re lovely as I think trees are lovely.
Less pretty and even hard to make out is this ominous Poe crow, looking as though it morphed magically into a demon on a stark branch above. Okay, so it’s just a bad picture, but it looks better when I see it as part of my bleak Edgar Allen Poe world on a desolate winter’s day.

I had been hoping that such a day, might bring one of the bitterns out into view, as it might need to step out onto the ice to reach some food, but they were content to stay tucked away in the reeds. On my previous visit, however, I managed finally to see a bittern—two, actually—thanks entirely to others. I always pictured birdwatchers as being secretive and not wanting to share if they’d caught sight of something special, other than bragging about it later perhaps. The reality I’ve found at the Centre is that people are kind and welcoming and will gladly offer to show you something wonderful in their scope.

On that day, I’d been walking towards the Wildside area of the Centre, I believe in hopes of seeing a Water Vole at last, when a lovely volunteer stopped me on the path and asked if I’d seen the Bittern from the Observatory. Had she not done so, I would never have gone there. Indeed, it took me several visits before I was even aware of it, and it made me feel a bit like an airport departure lounge, with its giant glass wall overlooking the main lake, but feeling far from the best action. And when I did pop in on my way back and still saw nothing, a kind woman upstairs suggested that I look through her scope, which was fixed on the elusive bittern.

Although it was so far away I could barely make out with the naked eye its shape against the reeds, I aimed my camera at it rather pointlessly but took a few shots just in case, and of course can barely make out the blurry result [see right], but I’m happy to have the memento.

The friendly sharing continued when another chap who’d joined us called to a couple downstairs to invite them to come watch the bittern, which led to a member of staff directing the gentleman, who was in a wheelchair, to a hidden lift (most of the Centre is wonderfully accessible) as we shunted things about to help him view the bird. He and his wife then showed me on their camera photographs they’d just taken a Water Vole near the Dulverton Hide, and although the sun was setting, I decided to rush there to try my best to finally see Ratty.

I had no luck, of course, and decided on my way back to the Visitor’s Centre and exit to pop into the Dulverton Hide even though it was surely too dark to see anything, thinking I’d just glance out the window at the emptiness and leave. However, two silhouetted gentlemen were in their helping each other find something they were straining to see—a second Bittern. They decided to include me but said things like, “Do you see that sand bank with the Egyptian Geese on it?” which made me panic and think, “Oh no—they assume I know what we’re talking about!” But then I realised I do know what Egyptian Geese look like now, thanks to my visits to the Centre. (Yes, they’re the sassy ones).
I watched it until it got quite dark, and then walked back with the remaining kind bittern-spotting soul, the only disadvantage being that we chatted as we passed through the gift shop, where I’d intended to use my coupon for a free book that I’d been given when I renewed my membership, so I thought I’d leave it ‘til next time, unaware there was an expiry date, 16 days before my next visit. So humph. But it was worth it. Not just for watching a bittern until late, but because the warm, chummy, can-we-help-you nature of the volunteers and fellow visitors shines over that disappointment. I was a bit intimidated when I first went to the Centre, seeing people who clearly know what they’re doing wandering around with telescopes on tripods and cameras that cost more than a car. But I’ve found that most knowledgeable people there really welcome the chance to share and don’t mind at all if you’re a novice.

Finally, this golden blur shows no cute birds nor any of the ice on my recent visit, but it always makes me think of cereal adverts for some reason, and its inclusion here is solely because I’m a bit peckish. Mind you, it also reminds me of the variety of mini-terrains in the wetlands centre, this reedbed area being one of the most peaceful, I find, because of the breeze in the wheat (or wheat-like grasses). Even on busier days, I seem to pass few people here, and I adore its tranquillity. Its charm never disappears, regardless of the season. There is always something fantastic to see at the London Wetlands Centre, be it migrant birds, resident birds (eg innocent ducks or sassy geese), insects like damselflies, as well as frogs, water voles (if you’re lucky) and glorious flora. It’s a marvellous place, even on a freezing day as this one was. I already feel eager for my next visit. There’s still a water vole to be seen…somewhere! 
Incidentally, the London Wetlands Centre occasionally holds wildlife photography workshops by photographers such as the above mentioned Iain Glenn and the outstanding Mark Carwardine, so keep an eye on their events page, sign up for alerts or follow them on Twitter.

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No doubt the main reason I’ve not written the myriad blogs I’ve planned on the many lectures, exhibitions and events I’ve attended is because I naturally must devote most of my time to finding a job as well as juggling finances to eek out my few remaining pounds for a little bit longer. But I’d find it easier to dash a few quick things off (and possibly spare you these endlessly long ramblings) if I could just update Blogger on my main computer.

But 99.8% of the time, I cannot, and I don’t understand why not. I’m usually quite clever with computers, too. But even though iGoogle and the Google News page will show that I’m signed in, if I try to access the posting area of Blogger, I get an infuriating Google Accounts error page.

“We've detected a problem with your cookie settings,” it proclaims in a faux gentle yet intensely annoying way. It tells me I must enable cookies, clear my Internet cache and cookies, and adjust my privacy settings, but I feel no compulsion to trust them to Google. Why does Google require this when everyone else manages fine? And yes, I’ve added the various Google URLs as trusted sites. Nevertheless, I’ve tried--numerous times--everything the error page has suggested (though I don’t want to be as lax as Google wants me to be), even in a moment of mad desperation switching off my security software to see if I could gain temporary access to my blog that way. Nothing worked.

Yet about twice that I can remember, I’ve been able to access my blog without problems. But that seems to have just been a happy fluke.

So if I want to post something, I have to save my pictures and other files on a USB stick or cramped NAS drive and dig out an ailing retired, unreliable laptop, fire that up soooo slowly and, once it’s finally working, I can usually post the blog from there. But it’s a massive pain. Why can’t I just use my main computer? They both use Windows 7, the same security package and internet browser (the latest IE). Unusually, I found no suggestions online that helped. Am I seriously the only one with this infuriating issue? Am I doing something remarkably stupid?

I don’t expect many people read my stream of consciousness rants so I doubt any of this matters, but it would be lovely to have the convenience of convenience. Answers on an e-postcard (or comment) if you can help. Thanks muchly.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

If I Smell of Wee, Mr Paxman, I Can Assure You It Isn't My Wee

Not long ago, an embarrassing incident led me to be in a position where I was shaking hands with the great Jeremy Paxman—or rather, he simply sweetly touched my hand in an apologetic gesture as we were speaking—and I worried that I might smell of wee, albeit not of my own wee, and that that might be foremost in his mind. It’s not a position I ever expected to be in.

Happily, Mr Paxman made no mention of any stench, which I took to be a good sign, nor did he crinkle up his nose then cover his face with a handkerchief, coughing and wretching, so I don’t think he was just manning up and struggling through to be polite (yes, I think Paxo can be polite. He was quite lovely actually).

Now, I’m very aware that one does not normally discuss such matters, ie how one might come to be smelling of wee, whether it’s your own or someone else’s. And anyone who knows me would be shocked to hear that I even knew the word "wee" as I apparently give the impression of living in a Disney world devoid of such unpleasantness. But I’ve decided to talk about that evening. Perhaps it will achieve closure for me; perhaps as a cautionary tale, it will help warn you of a danger or assist someone who one day finds him or herself in a similar situation. Perhaps it will make The Loathesome Evil Tube Woman feel guilty if she comes across this, though I doubt she will. Probably no one will read this, so I’ll vent away….

One evening, I travelled into London with a copy of Jeremy Paxman’s new book Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, as he was giving a talk on the subject at the Royal Geographical Society, followed no doubt by a book signing. I arrived at Cannon Street rail station and went down to the District line platform to head to South Kensington, and a train arrived immediately as usual (I am blessed with some magnetic pull with Tube trains; they come when I reach the platform, my one lucky trait). I stood by the door to let the passengers off the train first, which naturally wouldn’t have occurred to me without an announcement to that effect, and I watched as a girl in her late 20s stood up from a single seat on its own nearly opposite the door, the lone priority seat that should be vacated for elderly and disabled people. She got off the train, and I took her seat as there were no elderly or disabled people vying for it.

Now, I have a strange affliction whereby I frequently sit on a bus or train seat and believe that it feels wet. I’ve spent many a time leaping up, putting my hand on the seat, realising that it’s not damp at all, and sheepishly sitting down again, feeling rather puzzled and no doubt looking very odd to my fellow passengers. So I have finally come to accept that this is some sort of crossed sensor-wiring in my system, and have just recently started to ignore that sensation, the way a dog learns that that other dog in the mirror isn’t really there. The seat really never is wet. It never is.

So when I took this seat and was surprised by how warm it felt, I fought and proudly overcame my usual thoughts about a damp sensation and put the warmth down to the cosiness of this single seat set-up, the fact that it had just been vacated by a warm human being, and the comparative cold outside, particularly as I had been carrying rather than wearing my coat since it was a short walk from the rail station to the Underground. That sensation was always my imagination, so I got on with reading for the 20-minute journey.

At South Kensington, I stood up to disembark and, much to my utter horror, felt inarguably that my skirt was wet. Not an imagined wet, but absolutely soaked through, as were my tights underneath and, from what I could tell, the layer beneath that. Ugh!!! This time, when I belatedly put my hand down on the seat, I did not find the seat to be dry. It was indeed a warm, wet seat. As was my own. Disgusting.

I immediately felt an unbearable humiliation. I clearly looked as though I had wet myself, and I was about to walk through a crowded station up a crowded road to join a crowd at an event, with people walking behind me who could see my giant wet stain on my skirt, and then I’d have to, in a sense, soil the previously pristine seat at the RGS when I sat my vile urine-soaked self down on it for an hour or more.

Even worse, I was a bit frightened. My thoughts turned from Michael Landon’s film The Loneliest [bedwetting] Runner to a distressing scene from the film Hilary and Jackie. I mean the scene where Emily Watson as Jacqueline du PrĂ© is seated on stage behind the curtain about to begin playing a concert when she hears a trickle of water, moves the skirt of her dress aside, and realises with shock that she has just wet herself and the floor, but she hadn't felt it as that was an early sign of multiple sclerosis and her losing control of her nervous system. A rather subdued terror crept over me. What if I had actually wet myself on the tube journey without feeling it because I was getting multiple sclerosis? I mean, I’d seen a girl sitting in that seat before I took it, so it was apparently fine then. That disturbing thought turned to a sick feeling that descended upon me like a black cloak, the way you might feel if you found a suspect lump in your testicles or chesticles before you got it checked. But I hoped it was just a matter of sitting in something left by someone, although it seemed unlikely to be a spilled drink as the seat had been on its own, not where someone might have left a bottle beside them, and if it spilled on them, little would have reached the seat itself. And that girl had just been sitting there.

Normally, if something like this happened to you, you would just go home. But I’d just travelled an hour and a half to attend this event that I had been looking forward to, and I’d already bought the ticket and his hardback book, both of which I could ill afford in my newly jobless state. I wanted to hear the talk and get my book signed, perhaps having a brief word with the fascinating Jeremy Paxman. Plus, I wasn’t wholly convinced about the MS theory (worried, but not wholly convinced), and I hoped I’d otherwise know if I had had an accident on the Tube. If this was just a matter of my skirt being wet (well, soaked through) through no fault of my own, surely I could overcome it somehow. A happy coincidence was that I had got the start time of the event wrong, and as Southeastern unusually hadn’t cancelled my train, I had arrived in Kensington almost 40 minutes early, so I had a window in which to try to dry out.

But how does one dry out one’s skirt in public on busy Exhibition Road? Particularly a lined skirt, which meant I couldn’t even do something semi-mad like remove it and just wear my slip with my coat on. I had no slip. Just a wet skirt and wet tights, and of course wet knickers. Possibly wet with someone else’s urine. That made me gag.

It's amazing how this terrible guilt kicks in, as though you must at all costs hide your indignity, when my only terrible error was to sit down on the Tube. But I moved slowly and glazed with shame, doing my best to hide my lower half. Happily, it was winter so I had a long coat, which I put on to hide the evidence as best I could, but then worried that the coat might also become tainted and might hinder any drying action as a waterproof layer between the skirt and air. Plus I couldn’t wear it through the whole talk, and I felt absolutely revolting. But I was grateful to have some cover, and initially grateful that I’d managed to arrive early so I had a chance to tackle the issue, until I realised that if I’d arrived later, I wouldn’t have been on the train with the offending seat.

My mind kept going back to the innocent looking woman who had vacated that seat at Cannon Street. How could she do this to me? What sort of sicko was she? Why couldn't she say, "Careful of that seat; I found it's wet"? Because she wanted to distance herself from it quickly. She must be guilty. I hate her. She'd have my sympathy for having an accident but why not warn me, and just blame someone else, as any normal person would do?

That’s what I did. Not blame someone else, but when I stood up in what was now a crowded train at South Kensington and felt the horrible truth, I warned the woman standing by me who was eyeing my place to be careful as the seat was wet. Was that so hard? It served the purpose of acting humanely and also potentially clearing any guilt that might be attached to me, so the next victim isn't sitting there trying to hide her newly acquired shameful wet patch whilst spitting venom at the thought of me, assuming I was the filthy cause.

You may now put forward the possibility that the woman who silently disembarked at Cannon Street was just another victim before me. But you're wrong. She's evil and I hate her. She's all I can blame and she could have warned me. Plus, when she rose sharply as the train pulled into the station and marched off, there was no pause or look of alarm or reaching down to feel her skirt or the seat. And the seat was grossly warm.

So what did I do? Well, it was a cool night so I hoped a breeze might blow against my skirt and dry it. I stood just outside the entrance to the arcade leading to the tube station, which was fine because I looked as though I was waiting for someone, along with several other people waiting to meet up with friends. Or maybe they had all wet themselves and were standing there to dry out. But a total lack of wind was hardly the Dyson hand drier, and trying to flap the back of my coat subtly to fan my skirt with hand-made wind only served to make others probably assume that I had created wind of a different type, over and over again. Clearly, I’d have to stand there overnight before my skirt would dry out, so I had to think of something else.

I did try walking around rapidly as though I were on a mission to get somewhere quickly, but apart from looking odd (actually a frequent look for me in terms of speed-walking), I accomplished nothing. The skirt was still drenched, I still felt vile, and I still had a slight niggling concern that I might be seriously ill if I could actually wet myself without feeling it.

My Starbucks radar detected one nearby, and I knew most Starbucks have a single loo, where you go in and lock the door and have the hand drier and sink to yourself, which could be a Godsend tonight. I stood across the street to plan the logistics. I could not just go into a Starbucks and use the loo without ordering, but on my own, I couldn’t get a drink and just leave it on a table while I went to the loo, nor could I bear the thought of sipping my drink whilst sitting on my repulsive wet clothing before I could go sort it out.

So I waited for the place to get busy with a queue at the counter so I could slip past to the loo undetected. Unusually, that never happened, so I gave up and went in and ordered a drink. I then had to tell the chap making it that I’d return for my drink after going to the toilet (the sort of private information I would normally avoid sharing with a barista), and I tried to zip into the loo, but there was a queue. Horribly, this meant that by the time it was my turn, there were several people waiting behind me, no doubt impatiently counting the seconds I was in there, so I felt enormous pressure and realised I couldn’t possibly stay in there until I managed to get my garments dry. Those heartless weak-bladdered bastards ruined my best-laid plan.

I got to work quickly to do what I could, removing my skirt in record time as soon as I locked the door, and resisting the strong temptation to rinse it first as I couldn’t afford to make it wetter. I held it under the weak old hand drier, the sort that is less powerful than blowing your hands dry, which makes people give up and dry their hands with toilet paper instead, and the embroidered linen blend skirt with rayon lining simply wasn’t drying much at all. I was conscious that there were people right outside the door, possibly finding it strange that they could hear me constantly using the hand drier as soon as I went in, and perhaps desperate to relieve themselves while I held them up. I shouldn’t have let it bother me, but I got to the point where I had to give up and exit, which meant I also had to forfeit the chance to remove any undergarments to stick them under the drier, though that would have been a bold move for me (Is there definitely no CCTV?). I at least gained valuable reassuring knowledge--and this is probably too much information—but considering the likely directional flow and what precisely was wet and what wasn’t and where, I could confirm that this wasn’t the work of my own bladder. Phew. No MS then. I could entirely blame that girl on the tube. Witch.

Sadly having to abandon my mission for the time being, I replaced my skirt and stepped out to a queue of angry looking faces even though I’d kept an eye on my watch to ensure I didn’t lose track of time and remain in there for ages. I grabbed my waiting tea from the counter and searched for a radiator that I could lean against. The heat could, of course, feasibly force an unpleasant odour to drift up and permeate the room. But that was a secondary concern at this stage, and maybe people would blame some faulty Starbucks plant operation (I’m not suggesting that a cappuccino machine gone wrong would stink of urine; I’m thinking more of a faulty pipe in the wall).

Alas, I could find no radiator with empty space beside it. Oddly, the front door was propped open despite the chill, and happily my subtle evil staring technique resulted in the person at the table nearest the door leaving, even though he must have wondered why I didn’t just take one of the free seats. The table was high with tall stools, but I couldn’t sit on the stool or everything would just get damper, when airing was my mission, so I did a sort of athletic but awkward curved lean against the stool, so that the back of my skirt was not on it but was exposed to the open door. Of course, that meant that anyone looking or coming in could see that I seemed to have wet myself, but they’d probably be sufficiently distracted by the way I greeted their entrance by practically mooning them in a literally twisted way.

After much thought and virgin Dutch courage in the form of a Chai Tea Latte, I decided to brave the loo again. It was tricky because it was almost time now for the Paxman event to start (remember that?) and that was at the opposite end of the long Exhibition Road. But I was desperate to get drier and knew the RGS toilet had the hand driers in a communal area where women queued for the loos, so Starbucks was my only hope.

The Starbucks chap gave me a weird look as I headed past him to the loo for the second time in 15 minutes, as I imagined the people seated beside the loo who’d had me standing by them before also did as I waited again in a queue, cursing these thoughtless people in my way. Apparently I felt it preferable for them all to think I had some raging bowel disorder that caused me to spend half my time in the loo on two separate trips than to let them find out I had a nasty wet skirt. Silly perhaps, because I once saw a couple of women in the loo of a fine restaurant standing around the hand drier repeatedly shaking socks in front of it in a rather panicky way, and I really thought little of it. They were drying their socks, that’s all, albeit in an oddly suspicious way. But it comes back to the supposed stigma of having possibly wet myself, assuming no one would believe another explanation, and I somehow still felt a misguided sense of guilt and compulsion to hide my predicament. (Note to yourselves: if you ever truly wet yourself in public, tell people that you sat on a wet Tube seat. Let me know what happens.)

So having had an extremely rapid second go at (barely) drying the skirt, which again I had to remove first as the hand drier was so high (almost as though they placed it there without considering that people might depend on it to dry their rear ends!), I raced up Exhibition Road, no doubt creating a breeze that might come in useful, but arrived at the RGS late, and Paxo was already talking on stage. At least they still let me in, though they shuffled me to an upstairs part of the auditorium that I never knew existed. But on this occasion, I was happy to be a bit out of the way, and thrilled that the audience was in darkness. I still had people all around me, but I grabbed the empty aisle seat in the front row upstairs and draped my coat over me like a duvet so the rows of folks behind me might not notice that I was seated in an odd reclining position with my waist touching the edge of the seat, and my legs stretched across the aisle, as though I were on a sun lounger rather than an RGS theatre-style seat. The skirt was still wet and I just couldn’t bear to sit on it, and I’d count this as more valuable drying time. I tried to concentrate on the talk and prayed that I didn’t reek of urine. I have a poor sense of smell and by now, I would be used to it anyway.

Fortunately, the talk was interesting and it’s always a pleasure to hear Jeremy Paxman unless you’re an evasive politician, so my skirt and undergarments weren’t my sole focus for the entire hour, but I hoped my back-breaking position was helping to air them out. I may detail Paxman’s rapid, intriguing history lesson later, but the Q&A session afterwards amused me. Usually at talks, the speaker encourages the questioners with comments like, “Well, that’s a good point” before calmly offering an answer and engaging with the audience. I should have known that Jeremy Paxman would handle things differently.

With each question, some of which were along the lines of “I note you didn’t cover this area in your book,” his voice became a shrill squeak, jokingly hostile as he slammed the questioners with comments of this ilk: "Well, what do you expect! I can’t cover everything that’s ever happened in a few hundred pages! I didn’t cover Watergate either! What do you want from me?!” Not those precise words, but that sentiment. He kiddingly seemed to shout down every single questioner as though each were an outrageous challenge to his brilliance.

Hence I felt obliged to comment on that when I spoke with him afterwards. A sensible person in my particular situation would have just fled to the station and begun my long, wet journey home. But I had already bought the book, and I only buy hardbacks for book-signings, as they’re too heavy to carry around for reading (sometimes I get the e-book as well for that purpose) and couldn’t afford to waste money in my lean times. Plus I really would have liked to have spoken to the man, whom I always admired as a journalist and was even rather moved by during his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, which showed his human side (yes! He has one.)

To be safe, as I approached where he was now sitting on the stage, I put my coat on. As I somehow ended up being near the front of the queue (I didn't push any weak people out of my way to get there, honest; my lawyer told me not to do that anymore), I didn’t want the rest of the queue pointing with any “That woman’s wet herself, mummy!” exclamations (which would be doubly odd as I saw no kids there). Though maybe Paxo would find that flattering, that a woman would be so moved by his talk of empire that she lost all control. When you think about it, surely at least one of those screaming Beatles fans must have had a similar accident.

But I just covered myself, kept calm, and prayed that I didn’t stink of urine. So I dared to stand beside a delightfully kind Jeremy Paxman, albeit slightly at a distance just in case, and with a back-up plan if he looked as though he sensed a bad smell whereby I would crinkle my nose and stare accusingly at the person behind me, waving the air and perhaps adding a faux-shocked, “My God, man! What do you reek of!?” for effect. Also, as I asked Mr Paxman to inscribe my book, I did my best to wear an innocent expression that somehow conveyed a look of "It wasn't me, Guv". I think my whole plan worked rather well.

While he was writing in my book, I smiled and asked if he always treated audience members who dared to ask him a question as though they were irritating guests on Newsnight, pointing out his manner in playfully shouting them down and criticising each question rather than really answering it (in a Michael Howard sort of way, I thought of adding but didn’t). He surprised me by smiling sweetly and gently grasping the top of my hand, giving it a slight squeeze, and saying, “Oh, I’m sorry!” You might be reading that with an extremely sarcastic jokey tone in mind, along the lines of “I am soooooooo sorry!” given who the speaker was, but it was actually a delicately compassionate, kindly apologetic comment. I realised later that he may have assumed that I’d been one of the questioners he’d nearly abused and was thus apologising when I called him on it, in case I felt hurt, but in any case, he was a sweet pussycat that one doesn’t often see on the telly.

Sadly, he didn’t offer me a job out of the blue, bizarrely, so I clearly wasn’t giving off the right pheromones, but crucially, he didn’t say that I reeked of wee, for which I thank him. (Now, not then; I didn't tell him 'I thank you for not saying I stink of wee" as I walked off). Then I headed rapidly home for my ritual skirt-burning ceremony, via a Tube train and rail train full of seats previously occupied by civil people who managed a bit of control, and we all lived happily ever after.

So that was my South Ken wee adventure, a tale perhaps not as exciting as you were expecting. Maybe you had grand visions of some ASBO-badged youth rushing up to me and relieving himself all over me, as almost happened the time I had to wait for a night bus after a great concert and found that the iron railings I was leaning against in Trafalgar Square were apparently on the Official Drunk Person’s Map of Convenient Conveniences. Perhaps you wanted me to soil myself, maybe even whilst standing in front of the Knight of Newsnight, and are disappointed that I managed not to do that. Nay. But I won’t apologise. I tell it like it is. Just like Jeremy Paxman would.